Walking out of the doctor's office to her car, Clare Marie Ackroyd slipped on wet grass, fell and broke her right shoulder. When she got home from the emergency room later that day, her arm was in a sling, and she couldn't dress herself, fix a meal or even sign a check. That's an inconvenient situation for anyone, but for someone who lives alone, it can be a total nightmare. Ackroyd, 62, is divorced and has only one child, who lives in England, but her eight-week convalescence has been far easier than she expected. Ackroyd lives in ElderSpirit, a cohousing community in Abingdon, Va., and her fellow residents have rallied around her as her shoulder heals. One of them has taken on the assignment of helping her shower, dress and make breakfast. Others prepare and deliver lunches and dinners for the rest of the week. Just as important, emotional support has been constant too. "It's wonderful because I feel all the love and care from these people," says Ackroyd, a former librarian, who had moved into ElderSpirit from Bath, Maine, just two months before the accident. "This experience has really opened me up and shown me just what the community is."
Cohousing, which debuted in Denmark in the 1970s, is a semi-communal concept in which separate living units--usually attached condo-style--are clustered around a "common house," which, at the very least, has a kitchen, a dining room and a third area for gatherings and activities. The idea is to bring back a time when neighbors were an integral part of one another's lives, sharing meals and recreation--and providing companionship and a helping hand. That concept has been co-opted recently by older people looking for a way to combine their autonomy with access to a supportive community. Elder cohousing features single-story units; step-free entrances; grab bars; and wide, wheelchair-accessible doorways.
The first senior-cohousing development, called Glacier Circle, opened in Davis, Calif., last December. ElderSpirit's residents started moving in during the spring and summer. The common house in each cohousing project is tailored to the resident group's interests and needs. For instance, the one at Silver Sage Village, a 16-unit development that broke ground in Boulder, Colo., in August, will have a gourmet kitchen, dining room, library, crafts and multimedia rooms, plus two bedrooms for caregivers or visiting family members.
Ackroyd, a self-described nomad who has lived in Ohio, New York and Massachusetts, as well as Maine, says she chose ElderSpirit because she wanted to be part of a caring community that shares her interest in spirituality and a desire to assist one another as its members age together. In addition to three former nuns who came up with the ElderSpirit concept, its residents include a substance-abuse counselor, a city manager, a painter, an attorney, a secretary, a female police officer and a teacher, all now retired, plus a speech therapist and a tennis coach who are still working. They came to ElderSpirit from 10 states; there is even a resident from the tiny European country of Andorra. Although ElderSpirit members must be 55 years or older to buy or rent, the current residents range in age from 62 to 84, with the majority in their 70s. Once they have all moved in, the community will consist of nine men and 30 women, including seven couples.